My dear Mr Isaäcson,
On returning to Paris I read the continuation of your articles on the Impressionists.1 Without wanting to get into a discussion on the details of the subject you have broached, it seems to me that you are conscientiously trying to tell our fellow-countrymen how matters stand, basing yourself on facts. Since perhaps you will also say a few words about me in your next article I would repeat my scruples, so that you say just only a few words, as I am decidedly certain that I shall never do important things.2 Although I believe in the possibility that a later generation will again and always be concerned with a continuation of interesting researches into colour and modern sentiment, parallel, equivalent to those of Delacroix, Puvis de Chavannes – and that Impressionism will be the source of it, if you like – and that the Dutch of the future will also be engaged in this struggle – all this is in the realm of the possible, and your articles certainly have their raison d’être.
But I was going to wander off into vagueness – this is the why of this letter – I wanted to inform you that in the last part of my stay in the south I tried to capture a few olive groves. You are not unaware of the existing paintings of olive trees. I think it likely that there must be some in the work of Claude Monet and Renoir. But apart from this – and although I assume this exists I have not seen any of it – apart from this, what people do of olive trees is very little.
Well, the day is probably not far off when people will paint the olive tree in every way as they have painted the willow and the Dutch pollard willow, as they have painted the Norman apple tree since Daubigny and César de Cock.3 The effect of daylight, of the sky, means that there is an infinity of subjects to be drawn from the olive tree. Now I looked for some effects of opposition between the changing foliage and the tones of the sky. Sometimes the whole thing is wrapped in pure blue at the time when the tree bears pale blossoms and the numerous big blue flies, the emerald rose beetles, finally the cicadas, fly around it.4 Then, when the more bronzed greenery takes on riper tones the sky is resplendent and is striped with green and orange;5 or even further on in the autumn, the leaves take on the violet tones vaguely of a ripe fig, the violet effect will be displayed in full by the oppositions of the large whitening sun in a halo of clear, fading lemon.6 Sometimes, too, after a shower, I have seen all the sky coloured in pink and bright orange, which gave an exquisite value and coloration to the silvery greenish greys. In there, there were women, also pink, who were picking the fruit.7
These canvases, with a few studies of flowers, that is all I have done since our last correspondence. These flowers are an avalanche of roses against a green background,8 and a very large bouquet of violet Irises against yellow background, against pink background.9
I am increasingly beginning to feel that one may consider Puvis de Chavannes as having the importance of Delacroix, anyway that he has equal worth with the people whose genius attains a thus-far-and-no-further, forever consoling.
1v:3 His canvas currently at the Champ de Mars, among others, appears to allude to an equivalence, to a strange and providential meeting of the very distant antiquities and raw modernity.10 Even more vague, more prophetic than the Delacroixs if possible, one feels moved before his canvases of recent years as though present at a continuation of all things, an inevitable but benevolent rebirth. But it is as well not to press the point on this subject when one is meditating gratefully before a painting as definitive as the sermon on the mount.11 Ah, He would do the olive trees of the south, He the seer. Myself, I tell you as a friend, before such a nature I feel powerless, my northern brain having been seized by a nightmare in these peaceful places, because I felt one must be better to do it. However, I did not want to remain completely without attempting an effort but it is limited to naming these two things — the cypresses – the olive trees. Let others better and more powerful than me express their symbolic language. Millet is the voice of the wheat, and Jules Breton also. Now I assure you, I can no longer think of Puvis de Chavannes without having a presentiment that one day perhaps he or another will explain the olive trees to us.
Myself, I can see from afar the possibility of a new painting but it was too much for me, and it is with pleasure that I return to the north.
See here, the question presents itself to my mind thus. Who are the human beings who currently inhabit the groves of olive trees, of oranges, of lemons? The peasant from there is a different thing from the inhabitant of the great wheatfields of Millet. But Millet reopened our thoughts to see the inhabitant of nature. But no one has yet
1r:4 painted for us the current human being of the south. But when Chavannes or someone else shows us this human being, these old words will come back to us with a new meaning, blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the pure in heart,12 words of such impact that those of us brought up in the old towns of the north, confused and defeated, must halt a long way from the threshold of these dwellings. Then, however convinced we may be by Rembrandt’s vision, yet one asks oneself: and did Raphael want this, and Michelangelo and Da Vinci? I do not know, but I believe that Giotto, less pagan, felt it more, that great sickly fellow13 who remains as familiar as a contemporary.